Did you know that there are beans in ice cream and tree sap in candy? These days, there seems to be an increasing number of “gums,” derived from all kinds of odd sources, appearing on food ingredient lists. From locust bean gum and cellulose gum to acacia and guar gum, these ingredients play many varied roles in the foods we eat.

Acacia gum, also known as gum Arabic, has been harvested from Acacia trees in North Africa, the Middle East, and West Asia since ancient times. It is produced from hardened sap. Chemically, it is composed of polysaccharides, which are essentially carbohydrates, and glycoproteins. Acacia gum can be found in beverages, gumdrops, marshmallows, and edible glitter.

On the other hand, guar gum can be found in baked goods, cheese spreads, dressings, meat products, and beverages. It is derived from guar beans primarily harvested in India and Pakistan, and functions as a thickener and binder. In the 1980s, guar gum was used as an over-the-counter weight loss drug, but has since been banned.

Gums are also noted for certain health benefits. In particular, guar gum is associated with relieving constipation, along with symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome. It may even decrease cholesterol; however, more research is needed to confirm these benefits. Nevertheless, the concentrations of these ingredients, when they function as food additives, are not particularly high, and thus unlikely to exert these benefits.

Gums play a particularly important role in hydrocolloids — a term you might remember from your high school chemistry classes. A hydrocolloid is a system where particles are dispersed within water. Gums function as emulsifiers in hydrocolloid beverages. Therefore, their role is to keep the particles in beverages evenly dispersed, hence preventing sediment from collecting at the bottom of your glass.

Interestingly, gums aren’t the only unique ingredients that serve this function. Another example of an additive that performs similar functions is carrageenan, which is seaweed extract. You may have noticed carrageenan listed as an ingredient in chocolate milk, where it functions to prevent the chocolate from settling at bottom of the carton.

Overall, gums are food ingredients that may sound suspicious, but in reality they’re completely natural ingredients with few known side effects. Who knew the glitter on cupcakes was actually harmless?